Report: Mobile blocks show net filters “too blunt”

Mobile operators are incorrectly blocking access to websites of churches, community groups and rights campaigners using anti-porn filters – and refusing to unblock the pages.

Report: Mobile blocks show net filters

A report by the Open Rights Group and the London School of Economics has revealed the filtering techniques used by mobile companies to block adult content are catching sites they shouldn’t, and a lack of transparency makes it “difficult if not impossible” to correct the errors.

Mobile operators attempt to block adult content from being accessed via phones without an age verification check. Last December, ORG set up a website where consumers could report incorrectly blocked websites. The 60 reported since then include a community site, digital rights campaign group and a bar – as well as the website of privacy tool Tor.

Blocked sites

The ORG highlighted six of the sites blocked by some operators:

Biased-BBC – blog critical of the BBC

St Margarets Community – local events and news

The Vault Bar – Woodford-based wine bar – a blog “about anything you can put on a shelf”

Tor – online privacy tool

La Quadrature du Net – French digital rights campaginers

“Over-blocking is a problem in itself,” the report said. “It can mean a business is cut off from a slice of its market. It can simply see people unable to get directions to a bar. It may stop a prominent political organisation from reaching concerned citizens.”

The researchers also contacted operators to find out how unfairly blocked sites could be removed from the blacklists, finding it “difficult if not impossible” to do so.

“For example, O2 blocked the website of a Sheffield church throughout the second half of 2011, claiming it features adult content,” the report said. “The church member who noticed the blocks tried to report the error, and at first all he managed to achieve was getting the blocks on his own phone removed – with a text informing him he could ‘now access 18-rated content’. He was told that the church website itself could not be removed from the filter.”

The report called for more transparency on what content is being blocked and who provides the filtering lists, saying mobile operators should offer a way for sites to challenge such blocks.

“Mobile operators are dealing with difficult questions and by no means get everything wrong,” the report said. “However, at present the filtering systems are too blunt an instrument and too poorly implemented.”

We contacted the five mobile operators, but have yet to hear back with an explanation of how their systems work.

Wider issue

The report highlights the flaws of such filters at at time when a group of MPs are pushing the Government to force ISPs to implement a similar system for the wider internet.

“What mobile filtering already helps to demonstrate is that seemingly simple, laudable goals such as protecting children through technical intervention may have significant, harmful and unintended consequences for everybody’s access to information,” the report said.

“Where filtering is mandatory – meaning imposed by the Government or mandated by a court order with no choice to have filtering applied – questions about necessity, proportionality, and due legal process become even more significant,” it added.

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